This is a followup of sorts to a previous post, Against Exclusivism.
In David Tracy’s On Naming the Present, he follows Ricœur in arguing for a ‘second naiveté allied to a genuine openness to otherness and difference’. This is a call to pluralism with the alternative leading to a ‘Hobbesian state of war of all against all’. Naiveté is exactly what it is, as this pluralism subjugates difference to identity so that difference itself is lost. Difference does not just exist; it exists outright and on its own (conceptual) merit. Deleuze argues early on (in Difference and Repetition) that being is difference. Tracy’s argument (and presumably Ricœur’s as well) rests on the philosophical framework that unites the concept of difference with the concept of distinction. In other words, it is a comparison of two different entities; in short, a comparison of identities. Deleuze’s philosophy of difference conceives of difference as something that exists prior to comparison and distinction (c.f. Levi Bryant). A call to pluralism must first conceive of difference in itself, as something intrinsic to an entity’s act of self-identification, as an ontological concept. Pluralism must be open to both simple distinction as well as difference as the ‘prior ground of distinction‘.
However, when this occurs, inter-religious dialogue (i.e. pluralism) itself becomes problematic. This is because openness to such dialogue requires a level of understanding that is not easily possible. Such level of understanding is based on the ability to relate distinctions to known concepts and identities. In other words, communicative understanding takes place within analogies at the contextual level, not within the words expressed at the textual/discursive level. Here is where the problematic of pluralism emerges. If other religious traditions are truly other, that is different, the comprehension at the contextual level is always flawed because it ultimately rests on a conceptual identification where difference is reduced to distinction. Historically, we can see this in the colonial period of religious studies where examples such as Western influences in India created Hinduism as a consolidated tradition, including the ‘trinitarian’ concept of Trimurti.* In the 1970s, Edward Said published Orientalism in which he argues that the Western representation and understanding of other cultures is flawed for reasons similar to what I have noted above. While many pluralists seem confident that we are able to move past these flaws, I take a more critical approach. Even contemporary postcolonial religious studies have kept these flaws. As Ian Almond recently wrote, ‘we have seen how the use [a religious tradition] is going to be put to automatically creates the identity it is going to have…The “otherness” control of [that tradition], like the volume control of any stereo or radio, can be turned up or down according to the required context’ (The New Orientalists, 195).
While pluralism may be possible, it seems clear that we have not yet been able to see other traditions as different. I believe this may be in part because inter-religious dialogue can only treat otherness as objects of apprehension. As an object of apprehension, difference is readily replaced with distinction as we attempt to relate to another tradition through our own identity. It is an implicit action that changes the dialogue into an excercise of relations (i.e. comparison and distinction). Perhaps a better avenue for such discourse is not to relate to other traditions but to discourse with them without apprehension. In other words, by following Blanchot’s remarks about reading and writing*, we can (re-)discover that comprehension occurs after the dialogue, after the discourse—not during. Understanding occurs after the event of communication.
NB 1: cf. Susan Bayly, Caste, Society, and Politics in India: From the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age and David Smith, Hinduism and Modernity
NB 2: Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster